Jessica-Jane Lavelle is just back from Namibia where she is researching the governance of non-timber forest products.

Nestled between four river systems is a spectacular and complex area with extensive Kalahari woodland and abundant wildlife juxtaposed with extreme poverty. It is there, in the Zambezi (formerly Caprivi) Region of Namibia that I spent the month of June on my first field trip for my PhD. Given the low levels of education and very limited employment opportunities in the region, many people in Zambezi – especially women – are dependent on the trade of non-timber forest products as their only source of income.

Using devil’s claw as a case study, my research aims to untangle the governance systems operating at the local level, in particular the interaction of statutory and customary governance, and how these influence harvester access to and benefits from non-timber forest products. Devil’s claw is a medicinal plant exported to Europe and the US where it is processed and sold as a natural medicine for the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and tendonitis. As is the case with many non-timber forest products, there are vast discrepancies in the value chain with harvesters earning on average US$ 2-3 per kilogram, whereas the final product retails for US$ 300-700 per kilogram. This represents a mere US$ 0.20 per hour of labour.

The natural resources of Zambezi, including devil’s claw, are governed by various systems operating at multiple levels and including a diverse array of stakeholders. Traditional authorities have long been and continue to be an influential power and are recognised by the Government and communities as the administrators of State-owned communal land. The region also has many conservancies and community forests, areas of communal land where rights to the wildlife and forest resources have been devolved to the communities for sustainable utilisation. Adjacent to these areas are also formally protected areas – national parks and State forests. The concurrence of multiple laws and governing systems in this area results in a very complex situation with implications for the communities living in these areas.

This initial field trip involved focus group discussions and participant observation of harvesters and decision-makers from four communities including two conservancies, a community forest and an area hoping to register as a community forest. Preliminary findings were that: (i) the decision-makers often have limited knowledge of the market and lack the necessary business skills to improve benefits to harvesters; (ii) the complexity of decision-making structures at the community level results in slow decision-making which hinders action; (iii) the “voice” of the harvesters is undermined by the decision-makers who most often are not harvesters themselves; and (iv) there are conflicting perceptions as to who is accountable for what within the community.